Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Best ways to support intermediate students

Robin Walker
This was the title of a recent webinar hosted by Oxford University Press and presented by Robin Walker.  What follows is a summary of what he had to say.

Most students reach a plateau around the intermediate level.  How can we as teachers support them and help them through this difficult stage of their language learning?

Mapping the intermediate plateau

How do our learners perceive the plateau?  They characterise it as:
  • frustrating
  • not learning new things
  • a lack of progress
  • having a lack of motivation
  • being stuck
  • struggling
Typical things students say at this stage:
  • 'I've seen this before.'
  • 'I need more words.'
  • 'I'm losing control.'
  • 'I'm making more mistakes than ever.'
  • 'I can get by, but...........'
  • 'I'm afraid......'
Grammar on the plateau
Students are bored with seeing the same grammar structures, but the teacher knows the student doesn't have the right command of the structures.
Teachers need to:
  • Re-present old grammar in new and engaging ways.  They need to make it challenging and interesting.  When students discover the holes in their own grammar knowledge, it's very motivating for them.
  • Extend the known structures - for example, add non-defining relative clauses when students already know about defining ones.
  • Activate grammar - at intermediate level, students often see grammar as a system, but they haven't activated it.  They're not using grammar to communicate effectively.  Students learn as much, if not more, by using the language rather than simply studying it.  Output is so important.
Vocabulary on the plateau
  • Extend vocabulary through known topic areas - there should be an evolution in the level of vocabulary by introducing synonyms and antonyms and the idea of connotation (positive, negative and neutral). Extend word families and build up networks of words.
  • Teach high frequency words and verb phrases and how to use them meaningfully.  With verb phrases, teach the verb and the preposition together.
  • Teach lexical chunks and how to use them - e.g. Can you tell me?/Could you tell me? - teach these almost as a single word in order to get the pronunciation right.  Another example - the 'useful language' given in English File books - it's good to put these chunks on cards to be used during discussions.  Leave them on the tables as reminders.
  • Teach vocabulary and pronunciation together.
Pronunciation on the plateau
IPA is important because it allows students to access a dictionary fully.
Pronunciation to teach to get students off the plateau:
  • Key consonants - consonants are more important than vowels in being intelligible.  Problem consonants vary depending on where your students are from.
  • Clusters/word boundaries - groups of consonants coming together can be a real problem for some learners.
  • Linking
  • Sentence stress and rhythm - focus on stressed words, not unstressed ones, as this conveys meaning more effectively.
  • Vowel length - don't worry so much about the pronunciation of vowel sounds as these vary so much amongst native speakers, but vowel length is important.
  • Word stress - this can be given slightly less priority.  It only appears to affect native speaker comprehension and so is not so much of an issue in communication between non-native speakers which makes up most interactions in English.
Learner independence
We can't carry our students to the top of the mountain!  We can guide them, but they are the ones who have to do it!
We may have to teach our students how to learn independently.  We can show them:
  • peer correction/peer learning
  • VLEs (Edmodo, for example)
  • links to useful websites
  • how to find an English penfriend or Skype mate
  • authentic materials
  • Twitter
  • extensive reading
  • how to use a dictionary properly
  • how to develop a vocabulary notebook
  • where to look for English - on the street, on TV, on the internet, etc.
  • coursebook support
  • how to record their progress off the plateau through learning logs, test results, portfolios, etc.
Psychology for the plateau
  • Measuring progress - as students progress it becomes much harder for them to notice real improvements.  Learner diaries are a good way for them to reflect on what they've learned and how they've improved, as are portfolios of their work, including recordings of their speaking.
  • Goal setting - students and teachers can't be thinking about the final outcome at the beginning.  We have to set small, achievable goals.  As students succeed in these goals, they're motivated to continue their journey.
  • Believing - students must have self-confidence and believe that they can achieve their long-term goals.  As teachers, we must instil this confidence.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Fossilisation - an #eltchat summary

This is a summary of the second chat on Wednesday 11th September.  The full title of the chat was:

How can we tell if fossilization has set in and how do we prevent it or get out of such a state?
The chat was expertly moderated, as ever, by @Marisa_C, @Shaunwilden and @theteacherjames.  There were very few participants in the chat and this was definitely the shortest transcript I've ever had to summarise (only five pages!).  Let's think of it as quality over quantity and perhaps this summary can provoke further discussion on the #eltchat Facebook page.
The suggestion for the topic was prompted by Scott Thornbury's new blog, The (de-) fozzilization diaries, where he discusses his problems with acquiring Spanish as a second language.  I re-produce a definition of fossilisation from Scott's blog here:
Selinker (1972) noted that most L2 learners fail to reach target-language competence. That is, they stop learning while their internalized rule system contains rules different from those of the target system. This is referred to as ‘fossilization’. It can also be viewed as a cognitive process, whereby new learning is blocked by existing learning. It remains a controversial construct with some researchers arguing that there is never a complete cessation of learning.

(Ellis, R. 2008. The Study of Second Language Acquisition [2nd edition]. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 963)

@Shaunwilden commented that it's not just an L2 thing - he has fossilised errors in his L1 from too much exposure to students' errors!!  I think most of us could relate to that!
What are the causes of fossilisation?
  • Poor instruction - whilst poor teaching can not generally be blamed for fossilisation, and is clearly not the only cause, in my context in Vietnam where there is a very non-communicative approach to language learning, it was certainly a major factor.  Students came to university having had 10+ years of poor teaching and had errors so fossilised that they were very difficult to correct.
  • Students reach a stumbling block in their interlanguage.
  • Lack of exposure to authentic English - this is a particular cause of fossilised pronunciation errors.
  • When students feel they can be understood, they stop learning.
  • Lack of student motivation.
How do we know fossilisation has set in?
  • @Shaunwilden suggested that, as teachers, we instinctively know.
  • @theteacherjames said that he looks for inappropriate errors for the level - confusing he and she or unvoiced word endings, for example.
  • For me, it's when usual error correction is totally ineffective.
Does fossilisation matter?
The consensus here was that if it prevents effective communication, then it does matter; otherwise, perhaps not.
How do we get out of the fossilisation stage?
As @naomishema pointed out, it's much more difficult to 'unlearn' something than it is to learn something new.  Students often realise their mistake immediately after they make it, but they still make it because it's so ingrained.  They can be aware of their own fossilisation, but unable to self-correct or fix the errors.  So, how can teachers help:
  • Talk about the problem openly and honestly.
  • Be strict with your students (in a nice way!) - via @theteacherjames.
  • Drill your students, especially if the errors are with pronunciation.
  • Display 'Our favourite errors' posters in the classroom - these should be created by the students with some teacher input if they don't recognise all their errors.  @Marisa_C suggested using post-it notes which could then be removed when the error was fixed.
  • Encourage peer correction.
  • Record activities and play them back a couple of months later to track progress and uncover fossilised errors.
  • Make a checklist of common errors and have some students monitor and keep count of how many times they are made in order to raise awareness.
  • Use a writing correction code to encourage students to find their own errors.
  • Have students keep a portfolio of their work which can then be used in a one-to-one tutorial.
So there you have it, a short but sweet #eltchat which I sincerely hope will prompt further discussion.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Staying happy and getting ahead in ELT

This was the title of a recent webinar hosted by Cambridge English Teacher and presented by Colm Downes.  What follows is a summary of what he had to say.

Colm presented us with ten tips which could be applied equally well to helping you to secure a better job or ensuring that you remain happy and secure in your current one.

1.  Research yourself

Understanding yourself better will help you make employment decisions which are more likely to lead to a successful, satisfying career.  Ask yourself:
  • What makes you happy?
  • What are your strengths and weaknesses?
The process of analysing yourself will help you identify the skills, experience and knowledge you have that employers are looking for.  With the results of your research, you can make a career plan:
Diversify, go up, or get out
  • ELT author
  • Teacher trainer
  • Examiner
  • Expert (EAP/ESP)
  • Academic
  • Editor
Go up:
  • Teacher centre manager
  • DOS
  • Senior teacher
Get out:
  • Self-employed
  • Government
  • Photographer
  • Artist
  • Journalist, etc.
2. Improve your qualifications

  • Pre-service - for example, CELTA
  • In-service - for example, DELTA
  • Post-grad - for example, MA in Applied Linguistics
  • Other - for example, CELTA YL, IDLTM, CertICT (certificate in teaching languages with technology
3. Get involved

Teaching can be a solitary profession, so:
  • observe other teachers
  • invite feedback from other teachers observing you
  • take advantage of training opportunities
  • volunteer to give training sessions yourself
  • join online communities
  • watch webinars
  • get to know your colleagues better
  • share your experience and get noticed
4. Diversify
  • Teach a wide range of classes - all ages/levels, etc.
  • Teach a variety of specialised classes - BE, EAP. ESP, etc.
  • Actively seek out more work in the areas you enjoy teaching.  
  • Join a SIG.
  • Become more of a subject expert in the areas that interest you most - for example, blended learning, CLIL, etc.
  • Do more than just teach.  Develop your hobbies and interests to a professional standard.
  • Go freelance and develop a 'portfolio career' - short-term consultancy work, article writing, summer school teaching, pre-sessional instructor, etc.
5. Be honest, be real, be authentic
  • Be honest with yourself and in interviews - it'll make you sound more credible.
  • Admit your knowledge-based limitations in an interview and explain what you're doing about them.  Don't admit behavioural flaws.
  • Remember your students are real people and are often the best resource you have in the classroom.
  • Ask real questions, discuss real issues, and share real opinions.
  • Keep your lessons fresh with real, relevant, recent authentic material.
  • Go beyond traditional ELT materials, especially if you are teaching skills as well as the language.
6. Become an examiner
  • It's an extra string to your bow
  • It can supplement your teaching salary
  • It adds variety to your work
  • Look at Trinity ESOL, Cambridge English Language Assessment and IELTS
7. Attend a conference
  • Keep up-to-date with the latest developments in the field
  • Show your commitment to professional development
  • Network and sell yourself to prospective employers
  • Get an insight into career options you haven't considered before
  • Present yourself to gain confidence and recognition
8. Make better use of technology
  • Create your own website to give yourself an online presence
  • Read blogs or write your own
  • Network via LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Cambridge English Teacher, etc.
  • Build a professional Facebook page
  • Keep up with the latest teaching and learning trends
  • Complete a CertICT online
  • Participate in webinars
  • Read ELT journals
  • Keep an eye on the job market
  • Register for conferences
  • Apply for scholarships
  • Search for resources
9. Demonstrate your competency

Competencies are a combination of the knowledge, skills and behaviour needed to do a specific job.  Examples of interview questions you might be asked to demonstrate your competency are:
  • Tell me about a time when you had to make a difficult decision
  • Tell me about a time when you demonstrated good customer service
  • Tell me about a time when you showed strong leadership skills
  • Tell me about a time when you played an important role in a team
  • Tell me about a time when you experienced pressure at work
A common technique for planning answers for such questions is to use the STAR method:

You should prepare short memorable stories which demonstrate how you employed these competencies in action.  You should also measure your impact - you should use impressive facts and figures in CVs, cover letters and interviews.  For example, stating that you have prepared over 200 students for an IELTS exam is much more memorable than saying that you have experience preparing students for IELTS exams.

10. Develop a plan

Write a personal PD plan to help you to identify the specific tasks and goals you need to complete to achieve progress in your career. Aim to identify both short-term and long-term goals with time scales included.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Creative pedagogy, language learning and technology

This was the title of a recent Cambridge English Teacher webinar presented by Graham Stanley and what follows is a summary of what he had to say.

Creative pedagogy

The idea of creative pedagogy was introduced by Andrei Aleinikov in 1989.  He said:

'Creativity should be a central part of what you do with learners to motivate them and better promote lifelong learning.'

Creative pedagogy is:
  • Helping learners how to learn creatively.
  • Transforming the classroom into a creative and flexible learning environment.
  • Allowing learners to innovate, to create.
  • Taking risks and thinking imaginatively.
Role of the learner

Help learners to develop:
  • self-motivation
  • confidence
  • curiosity
  • flexibility
Components of creative pedagogy
  • FLUENCY - generating new ideas
  • FLEXIBILITY - shifting perspectives
  • ORIGINALITY - doing something new
  • ELABORATION - building on existing ideas
How do we link creative pedagogy with language learning?

Here are some ideas for activities:

1. Island project
  • Put students in small groups and get them to design an island, using the lexis of geographical features and places.
  • Put the islands together to form a group of islands where students can be creative.
  • The island in the middle can be an unknown island - the teacher's island for students to explore.
  • This activity can be combined with the coursebook, with the island in the centre being used as a kind of narrative to what is going on in the core text.
  • The islands can be revisited throughout the course and added to - places, currency, social issues, government, crime, etc.
2. Werewolf

This is a roleplay game based on 'Mafia'.  You can read the rules here.  The teacher acts as the narrator or storyteller.  The students are 'werewolves' who have to eat the villagers, or 'villagers' who have to eliminate the werewolves. Each night, one villager is devoured by the werewolves.  During the day, the werewolves try to hide their identities and the villagers try to discover who they are. 

The aim is to promote fluency and encourage the students to speak a lot.  It is an exciting game which really engages the students.  You could personalise it by getting students to write themselves a role - baker, teacher, etc. - so that they have more to talk about.

3. Creative writing prompts

Writing prompts can come from a variety of sources, but a favourite would be storycubes.com.  Here, students have a set of dice with images on them and they have to make up a story from the images.


In his book on creative thinking techniques, 'Thinkertoys', Michael Michaelko came up with this acrostic:

Substitute it
Combine it
Adapt it
Modify/magnify it
Put it to some other use
Eliminate it
Reverse/rearrange it

In our teaching, we can use this to look at activities we've always used and change them in some way.


We can take some of the ideas embedded in games and adapt them for ELT.

Graham gave us the example of a questionnaire carried out at the beginning of a school year which showed that students felt that writing was boring and they didn't like it.  To overcome this, he gave writing an element of gamification by introducing speed writing.  Not only does this engage students, it also improves quantity and fluency.
  • Give students ten minutes in every class in which to write (it's a good idea to use a special notebook for this).
  • Set a timer.
  • Students have to write as much as possible on a given topic.
  • Students have a table in the back of their notebooks giving the date and the word count (you can also have a chart on the classroom wall giving the results for the whole class).
  • Students count the number of words they've written.
  • The teacher circles the errors.
  • The score is recorded as word count minus the mistakes.
  • Students self-correct afterwards and can ask the teacher questions if they don't know what the errors are.
  • This is a competitive activity, with students competing both against themselves (to do better than their previous score) and against each other.
  • Introduce different levels that students have to reach.
  • Give extra points for special achievements - most original writing, fewest mistakes, most creativity, best introduction, etc.
  • Display the leader board prominently and award small prizes - badges, stickers or 'class money', for example.
Promoting speaking with an online game

Using computer games can be very engaging for students, but we must keep in mind a clear language aim every time we do so.  Here is a good idea for an activity to promote speaking:
  • Use screenshots of images from a computer game.  Students will be immediately engaged by the content of the pictures.
  • Show them to the students and ask them to remember as much detail about them as possible.
  • In pairs, get students to describe what they saw, using full sentences.
  • Ask one pair to share their ideas with the group.
  • Ask the group to improve on what they have heard.  It's important to push the students to be the best they can be.
  • Get the students to look at the pictures again and describe them again. What can be added to the original descriptions?
  • These activities generate lots of vocabulary.
  • You can extend by showing follow-up pictures and ask students to describe what has happened, what has changed, thus forcing the use of present perfect.
  • As homework, you could get students to write about what happened in the game.
Examples of screenshots you could use:

These are from the computer game, 'Droppy'.

30 Goals Challenge - 4. Revisit an idea

Goal number four of Shelly Terrell's fourth cycle of her 30 Goals Challenge is to revisit an idea.

After being full of enthusiasm when Shelly launched this year's challenge, I'm ashamed to say that I haven't posted about a goal for several weeks now. When I decided to take part, I was managing a busy English department in a new university and fully intending to be there until my contract ended in September 2014.  After that, Mark (my husband) and I were planning to take a year out to travel around India, doing some volunteer teaching and living off our savings accumulated between now and then.  This was my plan when I wrote my responses to the first three goals and even when I posted this initial response to goal number 4 on the mural Shelly set up for the purpose:

Introduce the British Council's CPD framework as the basis of a PD programme tailored to the needs of individual teachers.

How things change in a few short weeks!!  Perhaps, I will get to revisit this particular idea at some time in the future, but, for now, everything is different!  I am currently working my notice and will leave my present job this Friday (September 6th).  I have never not completed a contract before, but a combination of personal and professional matters conspired to make my position untenable.  There's no need for me to elaborate at this time.

Needless to say, since my best laid plans were thrown into disarray, I have revisited many old ideas whilst trying to decide what my next move should be! I can now announce, though, that I have decided to go back into the classroom whilst, at the same time, completing my Diploma in ELT Management with a view to returning to a managerial role later.  And the idea that I finally settled on to revisit?  Teaching in Russia.  I almost went there a few years ago but it didn't quite work out.  This time, I'm sure it will.  We've never been to Russia before, so we're both looking forward to exploring a new country.  Also, by going back in the classroom, I will have the opportunity to try out all the ideas I've been collecting over the past couple of years myself, rather than doing it by proxy (getting my teachers to try them out and report back).  On both counts, I'm very excited by what lies ahead!